Recently, I was listening to a podcast featuring Bea Johnson, one of the first zero waste advocates and probably the most notable today. Bea has a lot of impressive insight to offer on the topic of zero waste. She lives the virtues and ideology she preaches, and she has helped draw worldwide attention to the issues of ever-growing waste in our world.
Bea seems like a very nice woman with only the best of intentions for advocating for our planet and our communities. But something she said in the interview really stopped me in my tracks. Read on for more thoughts on why we might benefit from being a bit more moderate in our efforts to save the world.
Earlier this week, I posted the first of this two part series discussing my thoughts on how and where to invest our time and resources in pursuit of an ethical and eco-friendly lifestyle. I’d love for you to take a peak at the post in full.
To summarize, I proposed that zero waste and other ethical living practices often fall victim to the law of diminishing returns. We can make large strides with reasonable effort early in our journey to reduce our harmful impacts on the planet and in our communities. As we progress deeper into the lifestyles, however, our increased efforts reap fewer rewards. Eventually, we reach an inflection point where our individual efforts to spark change through our personal lifestyle choices become more work than they are worth.
Such a proposition lends itself to the obvious next question. If our own lifestyle commitments aren’t enough, then what should we do? Am I suggesting we all sit back and give up?
Back To Bea And Her Creativity
Bea Johnson is a globally-recognized zero waster. She’s the leader of the crew, and she seems to believe that just about everyone can lead nearly zero waste lifestyle. I definitely believe we can make a difference with our own actions, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
In my opinion, Bea’s lifestyle, while admirable and inspirational, feels like a far cry from something most of us could execute in our own lives. She and her family of four produce less than a mason jar worth of trash each year. Undoubtedly, she shares a lot of helpful tips and tricks we can implement in our lives. I think it’s important to remember, however, that her life is a model for inspiration, not a guide for exact replication. When we set priorities that include reducing waste, I don’t think eliminating our waste entirely should be the end goal. If it is, we’re almost certainly setting ourselves up for failure.
As an influencer in the space, she’s held to a higher standard than “the rest of us”. She also spends far more time and energy testing out different products, methods and alternatives for the benefit of readers, so I wouldn’t expect us all to exert as much time and energy following her as she expends paving the path. But here’s what caught my attention in the interview and really solidified my conviction that true zero waste (or even mason jar zero waste) isn’t for the masses.
Here’s The Kicker
Bea was apparently an artist before focusing her attention on her blog and all that has come with its growth. The interviewer asked her how she continues to make time for her art now that she’s traveling around the globe to promote her mission. To paraphrase, she responded by sharing that she no longer has a need for artistic expression because she uses all her creativity ensuring her family maintains zero waste. She is creative in the kitchen, for example, to be sure they use every last scrap of a carrot or drop of milk.
So… am I hearing that it takes the full creative energy of a natural-born artist to execute a true zero waste life?! It’s so hard that it takes a full-time commitment from a creative mind to make this work? I already opted out of pure zero waste life, but now… forget about it! I can’t do that!
We can all make small changes and we know those are meaningful, as exemplified in the chart and discussion in the first part of this series. However, we often reach a turning point where the return on our effort dwindles, and it probably makes sense to shift our resources to something else.
I can’t tell you exactly where that inflection point strikes. The time at which our individual efforts no longer offer a good return on our investment varies for each person and with respect to each aspect of lifestyle change you desire. I shared a bit more about this in part one of the series. You will need to decide for yourself when the effort or expense feels like it’s more work or cost, respectively, than it’s worth.
What Is The Next Step? The Something Else?
When our individual zero waste and ethical living efforts reach an inflection point, it might be time to consider looking to and supporting larger organizations working toward systematic and paradigm changes. Our resources provide more impact when they are put to use through an organization working on a larger scale.
When you are ready to shift some of your efforts and resources from personal change toward more systematic change, there are plenty of organizations fighting for paradigm shifts to help make our world a more humane, sustainable, balanced place. But how do we know which organizations to support?
Several members of Ethical Writers and Creatives and I have been discussing just this topic. Many of us have an organization or a handful of organizations we trust and support. To help others find an organization that resonates with them and can help promote more systematic paradigm shifts that support ethical and eco-friendly lifestyles, we teamed up to each share about our preferred organizations and connect our posts together to create a broader resource for you.
Fighting Food Waste to Feed Our Neighbors with Feeding America
Feeding America is a national organization that strives to feed America’s hungry through a network of food banks and also engage everyone in our country to join in the fight against hunger. Beyond having a database of food banks that we can use to find our local organizations, Feeding America helps drive conversation and engagement of others to serve those who are hungry, support larger programs that reduce hunger, and bring food to those who don’t have the means to feed themselves.
Feeding America provides myriad services to put food in the hands of the families and neighbors who need it most. This in and of itself is a worthy cause.
Changing The Food Consumption Cycle
As it relates to zero waste, however, I have taken a particularly keen interest in their new initiative called MealConnect™. We have billions of pounds of nutritious food already being produced in our food systems that never makes it to a table, many of which are thrown out by grocery stores and other food businesses. I discussed it in more detail recently, but 40% of our food goes to waste.
MealConnect™ is a technology platform that makes it easier to connect food donors (like grocery stores, food distributors and other local businesses) that have surplus food to local Feeding America member food banks and their partners.
Designed in partnership with Google.org, Feeding America’s MealConnect website assists food banks in identifying new opportunities, matching agencies to donors, monitoring pickup activity, and seamlessly recording receipts for any type of donation. The MealConnect program and technology, which is free for donors to use, helps eliminate some of the obstacles and headaches that have previously prevented potential food donors from donating their excess food.
As the program spreads and becomes more widely used, it should also help socialize the practice of donating food so it becomes a more customary part of everyday business practices.
The Meal Connect program offers a great example of how I can more efficiently allocate my resources to another organization in pursuit of food waste reduction.
Although I can address food waste in my own life (and I should regardless of the program), it won’t have the same impact as an initiative like MealConnect. I can be more thoughtful about what food I buy and how I buy it, pay attention to leftovers and food in my fridge, and compost my food scraps, for example. But independently, I can’t efficiently get grocery stores to donate their extra food and then transport that food to food banks and food pantries.
Pooling our personal resources (via donation of time and money) with government or corporate funding as well as legislative support to get a program like Meal Connect off the ground is a much more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective way to create a systematic structure for food donation than expending all my energy on ensuring I live a completely zero food waste lifestyle. I see far greater benefit from supporting another organization like this than trying to pick the last few apples from the top of my personal “zero waste apple tree”.
Once a system like MealConnect is in place, we can dedicate our personal efforts to executing this system that has much less friction in it than the previous large-scale food donation structure. Our personal time and money now have a greater impact within the infrastructure of the streamlined program.
Reducing Friction in a System So We Can All Execute More Efficiently and Effectively
Through their MealConnect initiative, Feeding America is eliminating the friction that used to exist in the system, friction that made it difficult or cumbersome for organizations to donate extra food. By streamlining the process, providing a free system to manage donations as well as resources to help donors understand how to donate, the benefits they receive, and the legal protections they have, MealConnect is greatly increasingly the likelihood that entities will donate food to the food banks and put their excess food supply to good use, instead of throwing it into landfills. Sometimes we don’t do something simply because it is hard, annoying, or we don’t know where to start. Reducing friction in any system typically make it better and more successful, and MealConnect is doing that for business-to-business food donation.
Scaling Success Beyond Our Personal Reach
Feeding America is the nation’s largest hunger relief organization and has relationships with both national and independent food companies. The network accommodates donations from large retailers to small family-owned restaurants and has over 2,500 hunger relief organizations regularly using MealConnect. Unlike you or me, this organization has the breadth and bandwidth to nationally scale the solution, thereby reducing food waste significantly and helping end hunger in America.
Eliminating Slavery in the Fashion Industry with Free The Slaves
Like our broken food production systems, fashion has it’s own set of deep, structural challenges. In addition to massive textile waste and pollution issues, to name a few, certain components of the fashion industry have fallen into the hands of human traffickers.
According to Free The Slaves, an international non-governmental organization and lobby group established to campaign against the modern practice of slavery around the world, 40 million people around the world are enslaved in industries like labor, sex and marriage trafficking. Of that group, 25% are children! Many of them are in Asia, and it’s even happening here in the United States.
Within the confines of my personal consumption and lifestyle habits, I can commit to buying only fair trade certified goods. If we all did this, in theory, we would eliminate the demand for goods like clothing that are produced in unsafe or unfair working conditions. But to expect billions of people around the world to give up cheap, disposable clothing in exchange for (often) more expensive ethically-produced alternatives is a pipe dream. It’s just not realistic.
We need organizations like Free The Slaves, addressing human trafficking and slavery from a variety of angles, to do the heavy lifting. The people within the organization dedicate their days to becoming experts in the space. They know what issues are the most pressing. They come to understand who may have influence in governmental organizations, for example, to drive regulatory change. They collaborate and combine resources to maximize the impact those resources can have in sparking paradigm shifts.
When I buy clothes, I try to make more socially conscious choices. But I’ll never buy enough clothes to be more than a drop in the bucket. Quite frankly, most brands that produce their clothes ethically aren’t doing much to change the system of mainstream fashion consumption. They really are just operating around or outside the traditional system.
These brands play an important role in the shift to more conscious fashion consumption. They provide an alternative path. They set the example. They do the legwork of figuring out what a better system looks like.
At some point though, we reach that aforementioned inflection point where buying ethically-produced t-shirts wears on our budgets yet isn’t much moving the needle toward industry-wide paradigm shifts. It’s at this point that we really need to critique where our resources are getting the best bang for their buck.
It’s still meaningful to support ethical brands. We need them on the sidelines as the mainstream brands with deep pockets, complex supply chains, and high volume look to them for insight and experience. But we won’t eliminate the unethical practices simply by buying another ethical t-shirt or artisan made handbag.
We need to allocate at least some of our resources to organizations like Free The Slaves that are working to educate and assist those overseeing and inside the system about better options.
So How Do You Support The Change Makers?
Every project requires funding, so you can always donate to the cause. If you’re in the area, many organizations could use volunteers, so a gift of your time might be in order. Maybe you don’t have the resources available, but you can spread the word to those who do.
Currently, Free The Slaves is running their annual Fashion For Freedom campaign. The Fashion for Freedom campaign takes place each June and July. It brings together the worlds of fashion and human rights, aiming to create a space where fashion lovers and activists can celebrate the efforts of ethical brands and bring awareness to atrocities such as slavery in the fashion industry.
Each year, selected change-makers working on the intersection of ethical fashion and slavery eradication receive the Fashion For Freedom Award for their roles as ethical fashionistas, anti-slavery advocates, and social justice champions. Nominations are now open, so be sure to nominate someone if you believe they embody this dedication.
The campaign culminates with an event in New York City on July 28th featuring a keynote address from legendary fashion activist Safia Minney. If you’re interested in attending, tickets are currently on sale. They are also accepting applications for volunteers for the event.
Free The Slaves recognizes the importance of the ethical brands on the ground, producing their goods in fair trade supply chains and paving the way for others to follow. They partner with these brands as part of the Fashion For Freedom event each year and then spend the rest of the year advocating for abolition of slavery around the world.
So What Is The End Game?
Our individual actions matter. Our consumer decisions can reduce waste and fund more ethical supply chains. But alone, they won’t fix the problem. Returns on our effort become more and more expensive to achieve.
As we reach the tipping or inflection point, it often makes sense to shift our focus (at least in part) to supporting organizations that are working to change the systems and structures. We transition our efforts to help these organizations drive paradigm shifts and establish new infrastructure, systems, and social norms which, in turn, streamline and make easier some of the goals we initially set out to accomplish but that weren’t providing a great return on our effort and investment.
Feeding America build new systems, designs process, and develops technology to streamline the process of getting good food to food banks for distribution to hungry families. Free The Slaves creates outlets and outreach while generating awareness and promoting regulatory change for the surprising levels of slavery hiding in plain sight around the world.
Instead of focusing only on our individual activities and working tirelessly to operate around a system that is broken, we need to invest at least some of our time and money on initiatives and organizations that actively work to change and rebuild the system itself.
Other Organizations Worth Your Time and Money from Ethical Writers and Creatives Members
Be sure to check out the posts from our EWC members who’ve shared more about their preferred organizations that deserve our dollars in pursuit of ethical living.
The Best Environmental Charities to Give to Now | Model 4 Green Living
Why Alley Cat Allies Is The Global Engine Of Change For Cats | All There August
Better Together: Fashion, Feminism, and Philanthropy | The Peahen